HL Deb 20 March 1984 vol 449 cc1179-91

7.42 p.m.

Lord Alport

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Alport.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD AIREDALE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Straw and Stubble Burning]:

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 6, leave out from first ("to") to ("on") in line 7 and insert ("unbaled straw").

The noble Earl said: This amendment stands in my name and in that of my noble friends Lord Stanley of Alderley and Lord Saint Oswald.

At Second Reading my noble friend Lord Alport put me into the category of those with entrenched vested interests. I think he now understands that I do not have these vested interests because I am not a farmer; I am a mere countryman who happens to have taken up land agency as one of his professions.

Farmers have to co-exist with a high level of public interest in the countryside. I believe that the right way to go forward is by co-operation rather than antagonism and by foresight rather than by rearguard action. I should prefer to see no straw or stubble burning, but not only must there be a means of utilising that surplus straw—and there is no evidence that this can be undertaken in the next five years—there must also be a prevention of further and abnormal use of chemicals for the control of weeds.

We are, therefore, faced with this Bill. I should very much like to see a shortened Bill after today, and my noble friend Lord Belstead has kindly produced the model by-laws. I should like to see a simple Bill saying that the model by-laws should be on a national basis and that any serious offender should be banned from burning straw. Let us see how that works and return to discuss the matter in five years' time.

However, turning to the meat of my amendment, it is to leave out the words, "to stubble or to straw (whether baled or unbaled)" and to insert the words "unbaled straw".

The purpose and effect of this amendment are to remove from the ambit of licensing the burning of stubble, which is not normally problematical, and of baled straw, which is only very rarely done. There is a substantial difference between burning stubble and burning unbaled straw. I was interested to read the 10th report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which was published in February this year. In paragraph 2.8, it states: In 1983 most of the public complaints about straw burning related to the deposition of smuts from the incomplete combustion of the straw". There is no mention of stubble, only straw. The report continues in paragraph 2.11 to say: We therefore recommend that the Government should announce the introduction of a legislative ban on straw burning on stubble fields to take effect in five years' time. In other words the report has drawn to my mind the difference that I also draw between straw and stubble. We have been burning stubble for many years, for generations, and it has not caused severe problems. We have been burning unbaled straw, which has caused some problems, in the last few years with the dry summer weather. There is, therefore, this difference and I believe it is an important difference. A farmer should be allowed to burn his stubble under supervision and in accordance with the model by-laws. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Alport for pointing out the fact that I did not include the word "stubble" in my later Amendment No. 26 and I give the undertaking to the Committee that I will, if this amendment is accepted, bring in the words "or stubble" after the word "straw" at a later stage. Thus the farmer, who, hopefully, does not have to have a licence to burn stubble, will have his actions controlled by the new and very draconian model by-laws. I beg to move.

Lord John-Mackie

In moving this amendment the noble Earl said that there was a world of difference between burning straw and stubble. Today we have wheats from which we can literally take the top and leave two feet or two and a half feet of stubble. I feel that has done quite a lot, especially with the new combines we have and there is the grave danger that people will use that method as a means of overcoming the by-laws if the noble Earl's amendment is accepted.

I give your Lordships an experience that I had myself many years ago when I was dairying and did not burn straw as I required the straw for the stock. I was on a walk just before dinner one evening and discovered a small open bale behind a hedge not three yards off the headland. I thought that when the plough came along that would be a nuisance and that I would burn it. I was in the shelter of the hedge and did not realise that there was a wind. Before I could stop it the fire spread and started to cross the field. I had only a walking stick and it was making for my neighbour's field. I vigorously beat it with the walking stick but could not control it. Fortunately, as I am very seldom late for dinner, my family came to look for me and saved what could have been a difficult situation. I think it would be a pity to miss out stubble burning from the point of view of long stubble for, like thick short stubble, it is just about as dangerous.

The Earl of Onslow

I hope very strongly that my noble friend Lord Alport will resist this amendment very firmly. I can see the innocent look on somebody's face when a great cloud of smoke goes across wherever it is, in spite of the model by-laws, and hear him saying, "I am very sorry, sir; I was only burning stubble". If a bit of loose straw which was left behind from baling has fallen off the back of a combine, how does one say whether that is stubble or straw? Will one have to go round the bit of loose straw? We cannot honestly differentiate between stubble burning and straw burning.

It is absolutely essential for the landowning and the farming community to realise and get into its head (which some members of it are not capable of doing) what offence this particular habit gives to the vast majority of the British people. We should be mad not to take that into account. The farming community is a privileged community and long may it go on being a privileged community because I am part of it and I like being privileged, but unless your Lordships take into account the things that are said by other people and take into account other people's views, more privileges will be taken away from the farming community. Then I would start to squeak; and I do not want to start to squeak. It is essential to resist this amendment and I hope that my noble friend Lord Alport will so do.

Lord Hooson

From these Benches, I, too hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, will resist this amendment. It seems to me that the degree of casuistry involved in the advocacy of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, of his amendment was astonishing. In modern times—and we are really dealing with modern times—as the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has said, all you need to do is to use the modern combine, cut off the head and you can leave a stubble as long as you like. Also, of course, these days very rarely is the stubble burned separately from the straw.

Lord Gisborough

There was a very serious accident near Perth where, as I understand it, the stubble itself was so dry that it exploded and in one moment the fire ran through the stubble, fairly short stubble, very' much faster than one could run to put it out. I have never seen it myself but I understand that it can explode in very dry conditions.

Viscount Mountgarret

I must correct my noble friend. I am afraid that what he says is not correct. It was a bale of straw that caught fire and caused the smoke and the incident to which he referred. I, too, think that my noble friend Lord Onslow is trying to split hairs to pretend that there is no difference between stubble burning and straw burning. It is not so. The amount of smoke or smut given off in the burning of stubble is infinitely less than it is from burning unbaled straw and there should not be this concern or the inconvenience caused to people if the stubble—and I emphasise "stubble" as opposed to "straw--is burned. To say that you then have to try to go round little pieces of straw that drop off the back of the combine is splitting hairs. That in itself is not going to give rise to unacceptable amounts of smoke. I think that the lily is being somewhat painted in this matter.

I think the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, said that the stubble is left about two feet high. I have never known any stubble anywhere in England today which is left at that height with the exception, perhaps, of oilseed rape stubble, if it is called stubble. That is rather longer. There is no possible way of getting rid of oilseed rape stubble other than by burning it. You cannot chop it, you cannot plough it in, and if we are not going to he allowed to burn that stubble, how are we going to get rid of the residue or the stubble of oilseed rape? I think that this amendment should be accepted in principle.

Lord Moyne

I should like to underline the importance of burning. The Bill does permit burning in the case of oats. You cannot spray wild oats because you kill the oats. Therefore, it is absolutely essential when you cannot completely control something to be able on occasion to burn. The Bill does not prevent that. It seems to me a point that ought to be made.

Lord Northbourne

Unlike the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, I am a farmer and not ashamed of being one. I think that it is absolute arrant nonsense to say that there is not a difference between the burning of unbaled straw and the burning of stubble. Undoubtedly there is. Whereas the burning of unbaled straw is a hazard and has caused pollution, to which people can reasonably object—and all of us would like to see straw put to a better use, although there are considerable difficulties in doing so—in the case of stubble it is an important agricultural operation.

If we are to go on growing substantial areas of autumn crops and cereals, we really need this operation in farming in order to kill the carriers of diseases and pests. If we do not use this method of killing them we shall have to use more chemicals in the following year, which I personally do not think is in the public interest and certainly it is not in the economic interest of the country. I would suggest that stubble burning ought to be in operation and available to farmers without any unreasonable restriction.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)

I wonder if I might say a brief word on behalf of the Government on this, the first of the amendments on the Marshalled List. My noble friend Lord Caithness was good enough to refer to the new model by-laws which we have published today. I asked that copies should be sent to all noble Lords who spoke on Second Reading on my noble friend Lord Alport's Bill. I hope that those copies have fallen into the hands of your Lordships. The model by-laws are substantially toughened and broadened in scope and, we believe, will give local authorities every opportunity to crack down upon anyone who burns straw and stubble without paying due regard to the interests of the public and the environment. I have every hope that local authorities in straw burning areas will grasp the opportunity offered to them and will revise their by-laws in accordance with the model.

I agreed with many things that my noble friend Lord Caithness said in moving this amendment. He spoke of the need to try to proceed through co-operation and not coercion; he referred to the new by-laws as draconian, and certainly they are very strict. My noble friend expressed the hope that we give the by-laws a chance. This, regrettably, is what my noble friend Lord Alport is not prepared to do in bringing this Bill forward.

I do not agree, if I may say so, with the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, in his criticism of my noble friend. For instance, Lord Alport's Bill as drafted, as I understand it, would prevent completely the burning of straw used, for instance, for the protection of strawberries, which is a practice followed by many fruit producers after the strawberry harvest. I think that we would perhaps do well, in looking at this Bill, to consider that there may be some fault on their sides. In other words, I am saying that I do not think that the Bill, even according to my noble friend's own criteria—and, of course, it is a Bill with which the Government do not agree—is necessarily right.

At the same time, I must say, with respect to my noble friend Lord Caithness, that I think that the amendment, according to the Government's own criteria, goes a little far. Our by-laws would allow the burning of stubble but under conditions controlled by the by-laws. Of course, this amendment would completely exempt stubble burning from the rules which would be brought in by this Bill. That is the difference—and it is a fairly narrow one but it is a difference—between the Government's position and my noble friend's amendment. I thought that I ought to point that out in saying also one or two other general remarks on this the first amendment.

Lord Hooson

Before the noble Lord sits down, would he not agree that the Bill put forward by Lord Alport in no way prevents the burning of straw on strawberries and in no way prevents the burning of stubble? All it does is to license it.

8 p.m.

Lord Belstead

That is in precise contradiction to what I said, so I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hooson.

Lord Howie of Troon

Is this not really getting very near the bottom of the strawberry barrel? Is it not the key to the whole thing. The question which arises is really this: to what extent would these model by-laws actually be applied? It is all very well to set up a series of model by-laws and to ask people to take them into account, but to what extent does the noble Lord the Minister expect these by-laws actually to be applied? If they are applied, something is done; if they are not applied nothing is done, so where do we stand?

Lord Belstead

The Home Office is sending out a circular letter at the same time as the publication of the by-laws, explaining in great detail the effect of the by-laws, which have been discussed with the local authority associations. The remarks and observations of the local authority associations and, indeed, the environmental and farming interests have all been taken into account and now the final draft of the bylaws is being sent out. A circular letter is being sent out by the Home Office drawing to the attention of the local authorities all the details and expressing the firm hope that they will incorporate these new model bylaws into their own by-laws.

Lord Howie of Troon

Does the noble Lord the Minister think they will?

Lord Belstead

I do, because the one area of agreement which I have with my noble friend Lord Alport in producing this Bill is that the Government believe something needs to be done—

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Belstead

—and it is for that reason that, as my noble friend Lord Caithness was good enough to say, the new model by-laws are very strict. We have said in the circular letter that the Home Office now will bring in an order to increase the maximum fine to £2,000 for any one offence of straw or stubble burning. That will come into effect on 1st May.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

May I ask the noble Lord the Minister why the draft new guidelines have been sent only to those noble Lords who spoke during the Second Reading debate? Does it not count that one has sat right through the debate, albeit without saying anything? Those who want to facilitate business are deprived of the opportunity of looking at what the Government are up to. Why do the guidelines come out at the moment when there is a Bill reaching Committee stage on this very subject? It is astonishing how we behave sometimes! Governments get cracking when someone else makes a move. They want to forestall someone else who is going to make a move on a matter of this kind. I will not comment on this amendment at the present time, except to remark that we have a numerous attendance of noble Lords on a subject which I must say does not excite quite so much interest among other noble Lords.

But I will say this in conclusion: I would comment on this amendment that although I am sure those of us who live in the country all listen with great respect to the plea by the farmers to have an opportunity of doing their job properly, they are really an awful nuisance to those of us who do not set fire to stubble but have to breathe other people's smoke. My own view is that stubble burning is a form of arson and has to be regarded as such in looking at whether we should permit it or not and, if we do, under what conditions.

Lord Belstead

I hope that noble Lords will forgive me, and I promise I will not intervene again on this first amendment. I hope the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, will forgive me. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, does not think I have been discourteous. We have been involved in many debates in the past and he always treats me with great courtesy and I try to do so in return.

The reason why the by-laws were only publised today is that they have taken many many months because of the enormous amount of consultation there has been with environmental groups and with farming groups: there has been consultation also with local authorities, although my right honourable friend the Minister announced that this was the direction in which he wanted to go. I realise that it is not the direction in which my noble friend Lord Alport wants to go but it is the direction in which my right honourable friend wished to go as long ago as last October.

Perhaps I may round off by saying that, although I tried to get copies of the by-laws into the hands of those who spoke on Second Reading, there are copies deposited in the Printed Paper Office and I know my noble friend the Deputy Chief Whip on the Government side, who is quick on his feet, will be only too ready to get a few copies and to hand one to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton.

Lord Gisborough

Can the noble Lord the Minister say whether these by-laws are now a matter of fact? If so, why have they not come before the House for consideration?—because I think they are totally absurd. I did not know whether to laugh or to cry when I read them. There is criticism to be made of all of the paragraphs, but, to start with, we have Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday—no burning. But what does the Minister think farming is all about in the North of England, where we have very few days to get the corn in? If he imagines that everyone happily goes home at weekends during harvest and does not do anything, he cannot know much about farming. At weekends when the weather is right, we must get on, and it is unbelievable to think that everyone must just knock off. It may have been raining for a whole week. Every paragraph is either stupid or absurd. A little consultation or debate in this Chamber would have been better before the Government accepted this.

The Earl of Erroll

While I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, about farming not being a Monday to Friday job, I should like to return to the amendment we were discussing, which was the distinction between stubble and straw. Whether we are talking about this Bill or about by-laws, it is important that we make the distinction, because, whereas straw can be removed from the fields, stubble cannot. There is a problem, as the Ministry of Agriculture tests show, that if you plough it back into certain soils you reduce your yields by between 5 per cent. and 15 per cent. No one has found a way round this, short of spending considerable amounts per acre in putting enzymes or other chemicals on the soil to degrade this stuff so that the bacteria do not break down the cellulose and put toxins in the soil which will retard the next crop.

The point is that with the present EEC structure probably collapsing and with the possible drop in the price of corn, in agriculture we are going to have a financial problem. Farmers may have made a 37 per cent. increase in their income two years ago, but their income dropped by 10 per cent, last year, and the new trend may go on, in which case we shall have a problem in agriculture if we seek to prohibit measures which do allow economic farming and which enforce the use of chemicals which the environmentalists will not like either. We are between the devil and the deep blue sea. But in prohibiting the burning of stubble as opposed to straw, and stubble which is not removable, we may be giving ourselves extra problems and we should make a distinction between the two whether it is in this Bill or in the by-laws, and we should be aware of it.

The Earl of Onslow

My I raise this one point? If there is a discharge into a river by a chemical manufacturer, he is not just allowed to bung toxic substances into the river; he has to pay for the river not to be toxic and to make sure that any effluent from his factory is clean. I really do not see the difference if the community says, which I think it is saying, that the effect of stubble burning except under licence, which is what the NFU wants, is going to be allowed. If, then, we do not have the controls on it, we are asking that the farming community shall have extra privileges even over and above any other manufacturing business. Any business has got to pay for its own cleaning-up operations. That is the argument about the 5 per cent. or the 15 per cent. yield and the putting on of expensive chemicals.

Lord John-Mackie

I would like to make a plea. I quite agree with the noble Lord that there is a difference between burning stubble and burning unbaled straw, but what I meant the noble Lord to appreciate was that there are almost equal dangers from burning stubble and burning straw. That is the point I wanted to make. Of course there is a difference in burning particularly short stubble. My experience was with barley stubble, and it was quite a dangerous situation.

There is a lot of bandying about of how much people know about harvesting and so on in various quarters. If you want to burn straw properly, and the stubble with it, then you certainly should not cut a short stubble. We always leave at least a foot if not more, but there is nothing to stop you leaving up to two feet and even more, depending upon the height of the wheat, and so on. To say that you cannot do it or that nobody does it, it is quite ridiculous.

Viscount Ridley

Might I ask my noble friend on the Front Bench whether he would not agree that the bylaws—admittedly we have not had very long to study them—would make the burning of stubble or straw so prohibitively expensive that the objects of this Bill will be achieved by the by-laws alone?

Lord Belstead

No, I do not agree with my noble friend on that point.

Lord Saint Oswald

I am puzzled by certain aspects of the debate so far. For the first time in my life—and probably for the last—I find myself in profound disagreement with my noble friend the Minister. It is almost a miracle in our relationship. I also disagree with other speakers who say there is not sufficient difference between straw and stubble. There is an immense difference, and my noble friend Lord Onslow certainly did not convince me that a difference cannot be found. In fact my noble friends Lord Caithness and Lord Northbourne themselves spelt out the difference that exists. As the noble Lord, Lord Alport, himself will be well aware, the burning of stubble is not a modern system, technically wicked or corrupt. It has been applied during long ages of history and reference to it is to be found in the Bible itself. The noble Lord may perhaps have in his own mind those inspiriting words: In the moment of God's coming to them they will kindle into flame like sparks that sweep through the stubble. They will be judges and rulers over the world and the Lord will be their king for ever and ever". This reference is to the souls of the just, no less; and an evil analogy would not have been applied to them in the Good Book. It is the wisdom of Solomon and not the common sense of Caithness, Stanley of Alderley and Saint Oswald, and so on, which the noble Lord is defying, if he is going to defy it. Stubble burning really is as necessary in agriculture today as it was in the days of Solomon, when it certainly was not licensed.

I want to say a word, and only a word, about the true toughness of the new by-laws, which the NFU have accepted. I think they have been very farsighted and even very generous in accepting them. Farmers are accepting them. The fines which go with breaking the by-laws are going to make things extremely difficult. The difficulties attached to increased firebreaks are going to impose enormous difficulties, especially on small farmers. If this Bill were to go through in its present form, I believe that many small farmers would be driven out of business and I think we should keep this in mind at every stage of the Bill, especially in regard to the present amendment, which I fully commend to your Lordships.

Lord Moyne

I should like to refer to one particular point, which is the forbidding of leaving any ash on the ground. It seems to me that unless vacuum cleaners are to be used, that cannot be carried out. It says that it has not been incorporated; and how else, if it is not incorporated, are you to remove it? This refers to No. 8 of the by-laws.

Lord Alport

I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, which has proved to be not only a longer but a much more interesting one than I anticipated when I first saw the Marshalled List.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

I hope the noble Lord will feel himself to be grateful also to those who have not spoken.

Lord Alport

However, there are two general points I should like to make. First of all, in answer to this amendment, the Bill as it stands, and the Bill as amended by the amendments that I have tabled, does not prevent straw or stubble burning. In the first place, a licence is obtainable in order to burn stubble or straw and it is available to everyone who wishes to do so. Your Lordships will see as a result of later amendments that if by any chance any farmer does not receive a licence, he has recourse to the law courts in order to obtain his rights; so there is no question of this Bill stopping straw or stubble burning. It does not do so.

The second point I should like to make is a very general one and it follows in some degree the point made by my noble friend Lord Onslow. That is, the arguments that we have heard for the most part have been made from the farming interest. I know very well that the farming interest at the present time is in an anxious state. I understand the concern that the present situation, with regard to the CAP and so on, gives them. At the same time I think that the farming interest, both in this House and outside it. must remember that there are other people who live in the countryside besides farmers. Not everybody, by any manner of means, is content indefinitely to endure year after year the consequences of straw and stubble burning which we experienced not only last year but which have been going on during the past 10 years.

I would very strongly advise—and not simply because I am advocating this Bill (my Bill, I suppose it is) but simply from my knowledge of the politics of the countryside and of this country—my noble friends who, quite rightly and properly represent the farming interests in this House and who have put their point of view, to remember that the farming industry at this present time cannot afford to be regarded as anti-social and an enemy of the general community in the villages and the country towns of Britain. I therefore implore them to take a reasonable view of this.

The issue of this amendment is whether stubble should be included in the licensing system which the Bill would set up. I think my noble friend the Minister made it quite clear that from the Ministry's point of view the objections to straw burning uncontrolled are equally objections to stubble burning uncontrolled. Indeed, the model by-law, of which I received a copy on which I spoke in the last debate, says this: No person shall, on agricultural land, commence to burn any straw or stubble remaining on such land after the harvesting of any cereal crop which has been grown thereon, or cause or permit to commence the burning of such straw or stubble at any time. Then it goes on to give further provisions. For the past 10 years and more, the problem of burning straw and stubble has been regarded as a single problem within the farming industry and so far as the countryside is concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has quite rightly pointed out that under the modern breeds of cereals, the cutting of the straw is at a height from the ground which is much higher than used to be the case, so far as I can remember it in earlier days. Therefore there is a danger to the environment, a danger of pollution: and there is a danger to health and all the rest of it that comes from stubble burning as well as from straw burning. It is not sufficient to make provisions merely to prevent straw and stubble burning: the anti-social aspects of both are in fact the same.

The noble Lord who spoke from the Cross-Benches earlier said that it would cost the farmers some additional expense in order to prevent the hazard produced by stubble burning. As my noble friend Lord Onslow said, this is something which industry as a whole—and the agricultural industry is a great industry—and in particular urban industry has been compelled to do for years past and for decades past. The farming industry must bring itself up to date, not only in its methods—and nothing is better, in my view, than seeing the wonderful countryside of Essex and the efficiency of the farming there—but mentally, so to speak. It must realise that some of the aspects of the present methods of cultivation cannot be allowed to continue, and would not be allowed to continue in any other industry.

I have been astonished since Christmas, when I followed to the best of my ability the technical journals of the farming industry, to see how often now there appear to be articles showing that the incorporation of straw and stubble in the land is not only not the disadvantage which had been claimed in the past, but in many cases can be an advantage, whether the land is light land or heavy land. If noble Lords would like to have evidence of that, they can look at this week's issue of the Farmers' Weekly.Progress is being made here, and there will he much more progress over the next 10 years.

But the fact of the matter is that the Bill as it stands not only does not prevent straw or stubble burning during the next five years, but, if my forecasts of the changes that will take place do not eventuate, then—as your Lordships will see from the amendment which I have put down later in the Bill—the Secretary of State has discretion at the end of five years as to whether or not a ban is to be introduced. I ask my noble friends to withdraw this amendment. I understand the concern which they have. I hope that they will take notice of what my noble friend the Minister has said, because if they do not withdraw the amendment then I shall ask the Committee to divide against it.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

Before my noble friend replies, I have a couple of small technical points on which my noble friend Lord Alport is at fault. First, I am amazed that he says that straw is now combined higher than it was. Any reasonable farmer today will make his combine driver drive as low as he possibly can. I shall not go into the details, but I could show my noble friend in practice. There is another small point on which my noble friend might even have misled the Committee. He said that the Bill is not banning straw burning, but I would quote to him Clause 2(1) which reads, "A local authority may grant a licence". If it does not want to grant a licence, it need not do so. So before my noble friend gets up, I am assuming that he will accept the principle that the local authority "shall" and that he will accept the amendment of my noble friend Lord Mountgarret on this small point.

I have one final point on the question of incorporation. I can assure my noble friend, though I am sure that he is enormously knowledgeable on agriculture, that incorporation is extremely detrimental to the yield. I am not making a great point of that at this stage. I am just saying that, in some cases, it is totally impossible to incorporate under present conditions, but we shall come to that later. I finish on a happier note by saying that I hope very much we are at one on the question of licences. I have down a large number of amendments with my noble friends on how these licences should be granted, and I hope very much that my noble friend Lord Alport will come along with us on them. But I think that he has slightly misled the Committee on the two points that I have mentioned.

Lord Alport

Perhaps I may answer my noble friend. I would draw his attention to Amendment No. 23, after Clause 2, which reads: A licence to burn straw or stubble shall not be unreasonably withheld from any person applying to a local authority for such a licence". So if, by any chance—and my noble friend referred to another amendment that has been put down by, I think, my noble friend Lord Mountgarret—a local authority refuses unreasonably to grant a licence, then there is the law. But may I advise the Committee that we have about 10 minutes or so in which to complete our consideration of this section of the Bill. If it was your Lordships' decision that the Division should now take place, that would enable us to conform with what I know both Front Benches wish to happen, which is to give an hour to our deliberations on this Bill and then to return to the Report stage of the Telecommunications Bill.

The Earl of Erroll

Before the noble Lord sits down, I do not see that paragraphs (a) and (b) of Clause 2(4) do not ban straw burning after 1st January 1989.

Lord Alport

My Lords, if the noble Earl looks at the Marshalled List, he will see a very substantial amendment which I have introduced which changes that, so I suggest that he looks at that.

Viscount Mountgarret

I have one further point about the word "unreasonable". Who is to decide what is unreasonable? It is very airy-fairy. One local authority may do one thing and another authority may do something else.

Lord Alport

I do not want to go on to another amendment, but the decisions will be made by the court and that is the right place for them to be made.

Viscount Mountgarret

We are talking about harvesting in July, August and September. If you apply to the court it might be October, November, December or Christmastime before you get there. Meantime, the straw and stubble lies there. I am sorry, but we are probably getting off the theme of the amendment.

The Earl of Caithness

What an interesting debate we have had. I should like to take up two points and, first, the point of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. I would willingly at a later stage bring forward an amendment to limit the height of stubble, if that is of concern to him. The stubble has to be below a certain height in order that you can burn it without licence. The second point was made by my noble friend the Minister, on which I think he was wrong. He thought that I wanted to exempt stubble burning from the by-laws. That is the last thing I want to do. I want to make it absolutely certain that, even if someone gets a licence, he should be subject to the by-laws and subject on a national basis.

My noble friend Lord Onslow said that there is public disquiet about the smoke. I agree with him that there is public disquiet, but it is our duty to warn the public that, if they get rid of the menace of the smoke, they will create a far worse menace by the extra chemicals which will have to be put on the land. I wonder how my noble friend would see farmers being responsible for the residue of chemicals from their land which has not been absorbed by the plant and the soil. After chemicals have been put on in large quantities in order to get rid of stubble and straw, they will get washed through after a heavy thunderstorm—and how will the farmer compete with that? That is far more of a menace to the public than smoke. The public have to be educated on this point and it is our duty to educate them. In view of what has been said, and in view of the hour, it would be unwise for me to take this amendment to a Division at this stage. However, I should like to come back to it at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 2: Page I, line 7, leave out ("or derived from").

The noble Earl said: This is a simple amendment to leave out the words "or derived from". The effect of this amendment is that one should not need a licence to burn straw which has been removed from agricultural land. This is a fairly obvious amendment. If one has a few bales left over in the early spring, there is no need to apply for a licence to burn that or to burn the straw which is a result of mulching strawberries. It would be far better and simpler if this amendment were carried, and it would expedite the situation for farmers. I beg to move.

Lord Alport

Perhaps I can save the time of the Committee by saying that I am very happy to accept this amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 3: Page 1, line 10, leave out ("carries a licence granted") and insert ("has been granted a licence").

The noble Earl said: I should like to thank my noble friend for accepting the last amendment. I trust that he will accept this purely technical amendment, which I beg to move.

Lord Alport

Again, I can save the time of the Committee by saying that I am very happy to accept this amendment, which is an improvement on the present wording of the Bill.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Lord Alport

We are about to turn to Clause 2, Amendment No. 4, which is a major amendment. It represents a decision which is most important both from the point of view of my noble friends who have tabled the amendment and from the point of view of the Bill. If it is agreeable, I believe that we ought to adjourn during pleasure for the next 10 minutes and return tomorrow to the Bill, since the Committee stage is to be resumed tomorrow after the two short debates. Then we shall have full time for the arguments about what I believe to be a very important amendment to be deployed.

Lord Skelmersdale

I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for his consideration of the Committee. Therefore, I beg to move that this House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do now adjourn during pleasure until twenty minutes before nine o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.32 until 8.40 p.m.]